For the longest time, Kenya was lull with threats of terrorism remaining one of the remotest possibilities until the twin bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 1998 by Al-Qaeda operatives.
The clear agenda of the mainly foreign terror operatives that coordinated the attacks on the US embassies in some of East Africa’s largest metropolises was still shrouded. The conventional thinking then, was that America and its interests was the primary target with Kenya and Tanzania only suffering collateral damages.
From the time of the American embassy bombing in Nairobi and Tanzania in 1998 to 2002, the threat of terrorism and radicalisation into violent extremism had become a clearly acknowledged national security threat Kenya’s national security fraternity as an emerging and a serious danger facing the country, security agencies argue.
According to officials engaged in the fight against terrorism, the country’s participation in counter-terrorism efforts and counter-terrorism operations at the time was still tepid given the primacy of terror operatives mainly targeting foreign interests in the country.
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After the collapse of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) between 2006 and 2007 in Somalia, radicalization into violent extremism took an ascendancy with nascent and largely amorphous Al-Qaeda radicalization cells drawing recruits from across Somalia and the rest of East African countries.
The collapse of the ICU also created a leadership vacuum in Somalia that was quickly taken up by Al-shabaab, which has since become one of the deadliest terror groups in the Horn of Africa region.
The expansion of Al-Qaeda influence in Somalia and the region ultimately culminated into a pledge of allegiance by Al-Shabaab in 2012.
Then what followed was enhancement of external attack sophistication that climaxed into the Westgate attack on September 21, 2013, where at least 70 people were killed and more than 175 were injured. Although the attack was purely conducted by Somali Al-Shabaab operatives, its inspiration had Al-Qaeda and Kenyan roots.
This threw security agencies into a spin with blame game being the order of the day then. Insiders say the attack forced Kenyan security agencies to come together and device a better, harmonized and more inclusive strategy – the multi-agency engagement in the fight against terrorism.
“The multi-agency approach to fighting terrorism in Kenya has largely been an experimental sojourn for Kenya because it was not based on any previous experience in fighting such wars. We have struck key strategic partnerships with other countries for joint trainings for Kenya’s security personnel to improve the country’s capacity on the war on terror, says police spokesman Charles Owino.
Other officers in the teams say ongoing multi-agency terror operations have yielded far-reaching positive impacts for the country within the last few years in as far as prevention and deterrence.
Notably, large-scale attacks of the magnitude of Mpeketoni in 2014, Garissa university college attack in 2015 or the Westgate Mall attack of 2013 have significantly reduced.
Al-Shabaab has instead focused its minimal sporadic operations in areas along the Kenya-Somalia border where it has resorted to a non-conventional warfare against Kenya’s security apparatus.
Many militia groups use asymmetrical warfare against disciplined and organized state armies to drag-on counter-terrorism efforts in hope of wearing out state armies and derailing economies of countries that are fighting terror,” argued another officer aware of the progress.
“Kenya’s holistic approach to the fight against terrorism has also seen hundreds of arrests and trials of terror suspects through the court system. While a significant arrestees have been convicted upon trial, there are still many terror suspects that end up being acquitted on appeals,” said police boss Joseph Boinnet.
He added the counter-terrorism effort in Kenya has succeeded because of the adoption of the National Strategy to countering violent extremism (NSCVE) in 2016, which was a first of its kind security strategy in Africa.
The understanding behind the 2016 national policy is that terrorism as a national security threat is almost symptomatic of many other insecurities that individuals or group(s) of people within the country could be facing.
The National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) is at the center of the implementation of the policy by enlisting and sustaining the support of different government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDA) in the fight against terrorism, director Martin Kimani said.
He added some of the critical pillars that the center has been instrumental in include de-radicalization of those that have disengaged from terrorism or violent extremist groups as well as reintegration of such persons back into the society. Several counties now have county level action plans to bolster the national CVE action plans.
So far, there are no absolute figures to really ascertain the number of radicalized youths that have de-radicalized and reintegrated back into the society to date although over 100 returned Kenyan returnee youths defected from Al-Shabaab and got enrolled into the national Amnesty programme in 2015.
Officials say there is also a need to improve the capacities of some of the key stakeholders that are involved in the de-radicalization programme.
De-radicalization from religious indoctrination is not a linear process and a one-size fits all approach might really be effective. As such, officers working with radicalized persons not only need an understanding human behavior, but also the processes, pull and push factors that lead some youth into accepting religious radicalism.
Cases contained so far
-In March 2014, Kenyan security agencies intercepted a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) that had been deployed for a major attack in Mombasa.
-In September 2014, Kenyan authorities, working jointly with their Ugandan counterparts, thwarted suicide vest attacks that were to be conducted at the two regional capital cities – Nairobi and Kampala.
-In October 2014, Kenyan security agencies unearthed a plan to conduct an attack targeting the Gikomba Market in Nairobi. Subsequently, three Al-Shabaab operatives who had been deployed to conduct reconnaissance, prior to the attack, were arrested – Abdurahman Mohamed Jamaa alias Zakaria, Maryam Mohamed Abdi and Joweriyo Mohamed Hassan.
-In February 2015, Intelligence investigations led Kenyan security agencies to arrest Abdullahi Ibrahim Ali and Mahat Mohamed Jama alias Zakariye, both Al-Shabaab operatives who had been deployed by the Westgate attack Mastermind, Adan Garar, to conduct another attack. A month later, Garar would be killed through a drone airstrike in Somalia.
-In September 2015 an Al-Shabaab assassin and Garissa University College attack facilitator, Abdullahi Aden alias Hidig was arrested as he planned the assassination of a prominent politician from the North Eastern Region.
-On January 13, 2018, multi-agency investigations led to the disruption of a major Al-Shabaab recruitment and facilitation network in Marsabit County and arrested a key recruiter and facilitator for Alshabaab, Sheikh Guyo Gosa, whose recruit, Mbarak Abdi Huka, would later be killed in a fire exchange with police after sneaking into the country to conduct an attack.
-In February 2018, Isiolo police unearthed a vehicle from Somalia that had been laden with explosives and weapons, which was hidden in a thicket at Merti in Isiolo County, with Al-Shabaab operatives on board.
-Hundreds of radicalized Kenyan youths attempting to move into Somalia to join al-Shabaab ranks have also been arrested in the period.
-Military, National Intelligence Service, police, courts, prosecution involved in multi-agency operations